Six hundred thousand New Yorkers hop into the back of a taxi cab each and every day. Indeed, bilious yellow Ford Escape Hybrids and Crown Victorias and the occasional Toyota Highlander/Sienna often seem to outnumber the civilian traffic. According to a 2007 survey, there were 13,237 taxis in New York at that time, but it often seems like much more now.
There's little mystery behind the popularity of the New York taxi. Manhattan's streets are clogged, parking is at a premium (US$60/day, or Dh220, is not unheard of) and the natural aggression of the typical New Yorker does not for a relaxed commute make. Driving in New York is best left to those either blissed out from too much yoga or mercenaries who miss the "good old days" of jungle warfare. Even compared with Naples, home of Italy's zaniest drivers, driving in New York is a pending anxiety attack.
That's why the most important launch, at least for locals, at this year's New York International Auto Show was - you guessed it - a taxi. Indeed, the entire press launch was a quintessential New York moment. The mayor was there, there was a protest outside and the assembled media jostled for photo ops with an intensity that elevated the well-placed elbow from mere rudeness to sublime art form. Impossibly leggy model-wannabees inspected credentials with the rigour of drill sergeants while, inside, the good folks from Nissan were hustling about like they were preparing for a full-scale invasion.
Since we are being hosted by Nissan, it was, of course, their taxi that is being feted in the presence of New York's royalty, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Yes, only in New York does one hold a press event worthy of JLo for the introduction of a cab. And again, only in New York are there some placard-carrying lunatics protesting the introduction of a cab (if I am reading their placards right, they're angry that the new NV200 is not wheelchair compatible, though New York has reportedly ordered 2,000 handicapped-accessible taxis).
Mayor Bloomberg, as he eloquently described in his sermon, er, speech, thinks the taxis worthy of commissioners, studies and mayoral action; he seems most pleased that all taxis now have credit card readers in their (heavily armoured) rear seats. According to Nissan, those 600,000 commuters will soon be enjoying the many enhancements the NV200 minivan promises. Greater headroom should result in more comfort, a larger boot means even more shoe shopping and a transparent sunroof allows passengers, as WC Fields used to sing, to stare at high buildings. More importantly, for Wall Street's omnipresent young Gordon Gekkos on the go, the NV200 cab sports a USB port to charge their lifeline smartphones. It all makes the announcement that the Nissan mini minivan will replace the entire current fleet — yes, all 13,237 or so of them, plus those additional 2,000 handicapped-accessible versions — by the end of 2018 something of a coup.
At any other car show, Carlos Ghosn (Nissan's global CEO, much overshadowed by His Mayorship at the NV200 launch, but the keynote speaker at the auto show, which ends tomorrow) introducing the fifth-generation Altima would be far bigger news.
Same goes for his restated goal of having Nissan, and sister automaker Renault, sell 1.5 million zero-emissions automobiles by 2016. Indeed, Nissan, being the global leader in electric vehicles, will be testing a small fleet of battery-powered NV200 taxis. The Big Apple's limited landmass and relatively short commutes would seem ideal for an EV and even a battery-swapping network. In fact, New York's very first taxi cab company used electrically powered motor carriages that swapped out their huge lead-acid batteries at the end of each shift. In a cautionary tale, however, the Electric Vehicle Company was bankrupted in 1900 trying to manage all those spare batteries and their battery-swapping stations. In a move so prescient it's almost precious, the company emerged from Chapter 11 by switching its entire fleet to petrol- powered cabs.
Nonetheless, Nissan is the company leading the EV charge so it should come as no surprise that the Taxi of Tomorrow programme includes six Nissan Leafs (as well as recharging stations) to be tested for their ability to cope with taxi life. Local cabbies had mixed opinions when questioned on the Leaf's abilities as a cab, the primary concern being range. Many taxis work multiple continuous shifts, making even level 2 quick recharging an intolerable delay. Indeed, that century-old idea of battery-swapping would seem to be the only solution for a serious taxi fleet.
Electrified or not, Nissan's boxy taxi cab was the news of the New York International Auto Show. After all, no one in New York drives.